- John Sibley/Reuters
- Matthew Childs/Getty Images
- Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
- Matthias Hangst/Getty Images
- Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
- Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
- Ariel Schalit/Associated Press
- Adrian Dennis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
- John Sibley/Reuters
- Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
- Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
- Patrick T. Fallon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
- Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
- John Sibley/Reuters
- Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
AL RAYYAN, Qatar — This World Cup is perhaps the final stand of Belgium’s golden generation of male soccer players. Behind stars like Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois, the country has hovered near the top of the world rankings for years and, in 2018, advanced within two wins of the World Cup title.
Despite reaching those heights, the Red Devils have yet to win a major international title. Now, with most of their stars in their early 30s, this could be the last time the core group of players is together with a significant trophy at stake.
In its opening match of the tournament on Wednesday at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, Belgium barely overcame a plucky Canada squad, which was making its first World Cup appearance since 1986, claiming a 1-0 victory thanks to a goal by Michy Batshuayi. The 3 points put Belgium atop Group F, after Morocco and Croatia played a scoreless draw on Wednesday.
“Canada was better,” said Belgium Coach Roberto Martínez, whose team was outshot 22-9. “But we found a way to get a win.”
For much of the first half, Canada dominated Belgium, dictating the pace with an aggressive attack and by winning an early penalty. In the ninth minute, Tajon Buchanan’s shot nicked Belgium’s Yannick Carrasco on the arm in the penalty area. Alphonso Davies, Canada’s best player, stepped up to take it, but Courtois dived to his right and saved the shot.
“I analyzed him, like I do with everyone,” Courtois said afterward. “He shot twice that side before so that’s why I decided to go right.”
Added Jonathan Osorio of his teammate Davies, “He’s one of the best players in the world. He’ll move on. He’ll have another chance and he’ll bury it. There was also the best goalkeeper in the world in net that he had to fight past.”
Despite lacking the pedigree of Belgium, Canada held its own and displayed a confident flair and — as its coach, John Herdman, predicted earlier in the week — “a naïveté that’ll work for us and work against us.”
“We’ve got to understand that there’s moments in the game they’re going to be able to take control or they’ll adapt quicker than us as we sort of learn through it,” he said of his opponent. “But we’ve got this sort of wisdom of never being here before and there’s an element of not fearing what Belgium brings because it’s all new to us.”
Missed chances, though, were what ultimately doomed Canada. Led by Davies, Buchanan and Jonathan David, Canada repeatedly created opportunities, particularly in the first half, but kept missing or being denied by Courtois. In the second half, Belgium had better chances but both teams appeared to run out of energy after playing at a frantic pace earlier.
“For what we produced, we deserved more,” said Canada defender Steven Vitória, adding later, “It’s tough. You don’t want to play well and lose.”
Belgium needed just an instant to score the game’s only goal: a long pass in the 44th minute from Toby Alderweireld down the middle — the only place the Red Devils found an opening — then a hard run and a deft first-touch finish by Batshuayi.
Lukaku, Belgium’s career scoring leader, watched from the bench with an injured hamstring but could return later in the group stage. Belgium, after all, had its eyes on a deep run in the tournament, not just its opening game. Given Batshuayi’s failure to convert several other good chances after halftime, it may need Lukaku to get there.
“We have to do better,” Hazard said in French after the win.
- Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press
- Buda Mendes/Getty Images
- Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA, via Shutterstock
- Glyn Kirk/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
- Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press
- Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press
- Clive Mason/Getty Images
- Noushad Thekkayil/EPA, via Shutterstock
- Carl Recine/Reuters
- Francisco Seco/Associated Press
- Hannah Mckay/Reuters
- Javier Soriano/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
DOHA, Qatar — Spain could have stopped after four. It might have slowed down after five. The decent thing to do, really, would have been to call it quits at six. It felt just a little cruel, by the end, that even after scoring seven goals, the red tide did not abate. Costa Rica, punch-drunk and dizzy, was left waiting desperately for the referee to stop the count.
On a day that had included yet another warning that status guarantees nothing in the early stages of a World Cup, Spain set about ensuring that it did not go the same way as either Argentina or Germany.
Luis Enrique’s team was three goals ahead and out of sight within half an hour, Costa Rica unable to keep track of the intricate, dancing movement of Spain’s impish teenage midfielders, Gavi and Pedri, or the incisive pulses of Dani Olmo, Marcos Asensio and Ferran Torres ahead of them.
Rather than relax, though, Spain spent the second half seeking to break whichever records fell in its path. Gavi scored the fifth with a sumptuous volley, the sort that might be placed in a textbook, and became the country’s youngest ever scorer at a World Cup finals; he turned 18 only a little more than eight months ago.
When Álvaro Morata added a seventh in the 92nd minute — what appears now to be early, rather than deep, into added time — it was the first time in Spain’s history that it had scored seven in a single game at a World Cup.
Most significant, though, was that it had done so with only seven shots on target. Efficiency has been Spain’s Achilles’ heel in recent years; it has not passed the round of 16 of the tournament since winning it in 2010 largely because of an inability to turn its dominance of the ball into the rather more precious currency of goals.
That, on this evidence, will not be a problem this time around. Six players scored against Costa Rica — Torres, the Barcelona forward, got two — and Enrique did not even need to introduce arguably his most explosive attacking option, Torres’s club teammate Ansu Fati. That refusal to stop, to take its foot from the gas, that flirting with cruelty might not have been appreciated by Costa Rica, or its heartbroken fans. But then nobody ever won a World Cup by being nice.
The BBC should have spoken out more about Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its human rights record when the country hosted the World Cup in 2018, said Gary Lineker, the broadcaster’s prominent soccer commentator.
“I do look back four years ago and feel slightly uncomfortable,” Mr. Lineker, a former star soccer player for England, said in a BBC interview that aired on Wednesday. Mr. Lineker, who is the face of the BBC’s coverage of this year’s World Cup in Qatar, said the 2018 programming, of which he was a key member, had been an example of “sportwashing,” because the presenters had not properly reported on Russia’s record outside soccer.
The top scorer at the 1986 World Cup, Mr. Lineker declined to host this year’s World Cup draw, a high-profile event that in essence kick-starts the tournament. It was a turnaround from his position ahead of the last World Cup, where he presided over the event in Moscow.
His decision this year prompted criticism from some sections of the British news media. Mr. Lineker decided not to headline the 2022 event, saying it would be hypocritical for him to do so given his misgivings over holding the event in Qatar.
“We’ve seen what Putin’s done subsequently — but he’d done it before,” Mr. Lineker said in the interview, referring to the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, and the country’s annexation of Crimea, which was condemned globally and prompted the imposing of international sanctions against Moscow. The annexation led to calls for officials from FIFA, world soccer’s global governing body, to reconsider hosting the tournament in Russia, but the body stood by its decision.
The question of whether politics can be removed from global sporting events like the World Cup has been the subject of heated debate. After Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, FIFA suspended Russia and its teams from all competitions, ejecting the country from qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.
The BBC’s commentators discussed human rights issues in Qatar in coverage ahead of the tournament’s opening game on Sunday. The decision not to do so with Russia in 2018 was a “mistake,” Mr. Lineker said.
“Looking back now in hindsight, I think we should probably have spoken out more,” Mr. Lineker said of Russia’s record beyond sport. It was something, he said, that the BBC and its sports presenters had learned from.
The BBC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
American investigators and FIFA itself have said multiple FIFA board members accepted bribes to award Qatar with hosting rights for the World Cup. Russia has also been suspected of buying votes during its bid for the tournament.
Thousands of migrant workers have died in the process of building Qatar’s new stadiums and other World Cup infrastructure projects, according to human rights groups. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, prompting L.G.B.T.Q. fans from other countries to stay home. For fans who have traveled to Qatar, laws in the strict, conservative nation mean that displays of public affection or gestures that are considered rude could land offenders in jail.
On Monday, the captains of seven national soccer teams were forced to drop plans to wear “One Love” armbands, which promote diversity and inclusion, after FIFA said they would be penalized.
DOHA, Qatar — As the photographers lined up at Khalifa International Stadium, preparing for the traditional but often perfunctory ritual of taking a team photo, Germany’s players made the World Cup their moment to take a stand.
Raising their right hands to their mouths and keeping them there until the last picture had been taken, Germany engaged in a silent act of rebellion against FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, which had prevented its captain from wearing a multicolored armband in the match as part of a social justice campaign.
The action came two days after FIFA blocked not only Germany but also several other European teams from wearing armbands promoting gay rights by threatening them with in-game discipline, a decision that has infuriated the teams — and led to accusations against the tournament organizer of bullying — but has ultimately been followed.
The campaign was meant to raise awareness of marginalized groups in the host country, Qatar, which criminalizes homosexual conduct. The teams had notified FIFA about their plans in September but only got a response hours before England, the first among the teams to pledge to make a stand, was set to open its campaign on Monday. The teams said they had expected to be fined for breaching FIFA’s strict uniform regulations, but instead were told their captains would receive a yellow card.
“It wasn’t about making a political statement — human rights are nonnegotiable,” Germany’s team said in a statement posted on its official Twitter account moments after the kickoff of its shock 2-1 loss. “That should be taken for granted, but it still isn’t the case. That’s why this message is so important to us. Denying us the armband is the same as denying us a voice.”
Germany has been among the most outspoken of the teams — and fan bases — on human rights concerns in Qatar; banners criticizing the tiny Gulf emirate and FIFA have been a regular sight at league games in Germany this season. The country’s politicians have also angered Qatar with outspoken criticism in the days leading up to the start of the World Cup.
That fury is likely to have grown on Wednesday. Before the players made their on-field demonstration, Nancy Faeser, Germany’s interior minister, made her own statement up in the seats reserved for FIFA’s most important guests. She arrived at the stadium in a pink suit, but by the time she had taken her seat next to FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, she had removed the blazer to reveal the “One Love”-branded multicolored armband that Germany’s captain, Manuel Neuer, and the others had been preparing to wear. Faeser, who is not a part of Germany’s delegation, cannot receive a yellow card.
It wasn’t about making a political statement – human rights are non-negotiable. That should be taken for granted, but it still isn’t the case. That’s why this message is so important to us.— Germany (@DFB_Team_EN) November 23, 2022
Denying us the armband is the same as denying us a voice. We stand by our position. pic.twitter.com/tiQKuE4XV7
The armband ruling has shadowed the early days of the tournament. FIFA’s attempts to shift focus to the field have been undermined by daily controversies over its prohibition of symbols supporting the L.G.B.T.Q. community. Some fans have been confounded by overzealous security guards prohibiting clothing and banners that were not intended to be a form of protest, including in one incident where a fan was barred from entering a stadium with the flag of Pernambuco, a Brazilian state.
FIFA on Wednesday did not comment on Germany’s protest. But other officials were far more vocal.
German officials were reported to be studying their legal options and planning to take a complaint to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The chief executive of Denmark’s soccer federation, Jakob Jensen, talked about the possibility of even leaving FIFA, saying his organization had already decided not to endorse Infantino for re-election in March. The president is the only candidate.
“We have been discussing it in the Nordic region since August,” Jensen said of the possibility that Denmark would leave the organization. “I’ve thought about it again. I imagine that there may be challenges if Denmark leaves on its own. But let us see if we cannot have a dialogue on things.
“I have to think about the question of how to restore confidence in FIFA. We must evaluate what has happened, and then we must create a strategy, also with our Nordic colleagues.”
FIFA’s silence on the matter since it announced a resolution with the teams has only increased speculation about whether it or Qatari officials are setting the guidelines for what is permissible inside the stadium. Tricolor flags, bearing the words “Free Palestine,” for example, were visible in the Tunisia section of the game against Denmark on Tuesday, a day after FIFA clamped down on Iranian supporters wearing T-shirts or carrying banners criticizing their government.
DOHA, Qatar — These are the days in which the mighty fall. On Day 3 of the World Cup, Argentina was left reeling after suffering a chastening defeat to Saudi Arabia. On Day 4, it was Germany’s turn. Another of the pretournament favorites was left shocked and embarrassed by a supposed makeweight.
This time, Japan took center stage. Just like Saudi Arabia, it had struggled for air in the first half, falling behind to a penalty from Ilkay Gündogan and then holding on with grim determination to restrict the damage before halftime. And, just like Saudi Arabia, it capitalized on its good fortune, drawing level through Ritsu Doan and then claiming a victory with a goal from Takuma Asano.
Japan’s win is not, in truth, a shock of the same order as Saudi Arabia’s defeat of Argentina a day earlier: Japan is, after all, a regular presence at the World Cup, a feature of each of the last seven editions and, on occasion, a team that survives long enough to make it beyond the group stage. Its most famous victories, though, have come against the likes of Denmark and Colombia; it does not, or at least had not, generally made a seismic impact on the tournament.
Defeating Germany changed that with a stroke. Not simply because of the caliber of opponent — Coach Hansi Flick’s Germany boasts a core of players from Bayern Munich, as well as stars from Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund — but because of the likely consequences.
Drawn in the same group as another of the favorites, Spain, Germany — which began the game with a silent protest against FIFA’s armband ban — had precious little margin for error. Though this is not quite a knockout blow, should the Germans fail to beat Spain when they meet on Sunday, one of Europe’s great traditional powers would face the ignominy of a second successive elimination in the group stage.
It is tempting to wonder, too, if something of a pattern is starting to emerge. The opening days of World Cups tend to be just a touch chaotic, with even the most talented teams still settling into their shape and their rhythm, and those squads marked out as underdogs not yet confronted with cold, harsh reality.
Given the circumstances, that was always likely to be more pronounced in Qatar: Rather than the traditional three-week break in which to craft players from disparate clubs into something resembling a coherent unit, coaches had only a few days. The rosters of the favorites are packed with players who have spent the previous three months playing a game almost every three days.
It has not applied to everyone — France and England both sailed through their opening games — but nor are Germany and Argentina the only powerhouses to stumble. Earlier on Wednesday, Croatia, a finalist in 2018, had labored through a scoreless tie against Morocco. A day earlier, Denmark, having qualified imperiously, was held to a scoreless draw by Tunisia. Reputations, in these days of shock and awe, seem to count for very little.
Flashes of brilliance! Bursts of energy! They’re things you’ll find in other games, and there were a few in this one. But there were no goals, and that produced a largely unsatisfying 90 minutes of soccer, and a 0-0 draw. There was little to get your heart racing.
Croatia, one of the tournament’s more veteran squads, began the game looking more old than experienced. They began to wake up in the final minutes of the first half and looked slightly more alive in the second, but none of their chances were particularly frightening, despite holding possession for 65 percent of the time.
Morocco had more sparks of danger, but the Croatian goalkeeper had little to fear. Achraf Hakimi uncorked a powerful strike on a free kick, briefly looking like it could be dangerous, but it flew straight to the goalkeeper and the sheet remained clean.
Group F was already thought to be perhaps the most inscrutable group of the tournament, and the draw brings no further clarity. The other members of the group, Belgium and Canada, play later Wednesday.
Slowly, quietly, Argentina’s players made their way back to their training camp in Doha, away from Lusail, away from a place they will never want to see again but where they will hope, more than anything, to return.
Nobody on that journey wanted to talk. The only voice was that of Lionel Messi, urging his devastated teammates to remain united, reminding them that even after defeat against Saudi Arabia, their fate is still in their hands. When they reached the hotel, Lionel Scaloni and his coaching staff told the players that, for once, their postgame meal was optional. If they did not feel like talking, they could stay in their rooms, to contemplate, to grieve.
Argentina’s loss to Saudi Arabia may, in time, come to be seen as the worst in the country’s history, beyond even the embarrassment of Cameroon in 1990. It is scant solace, but it should not go down as the greatest shock in the World Cup’s history: It is not of the order of the United States beating England in 1950 and North Korea overcoming Italy in 1966.
It is, though, a stark warning to the three European heavyweights who enter the contest today that nothing can be taken for granted. None of Spain, Germany and Belgium came into this tournament with expectations quite as high as Argentina, admittedly.
Spain, with only the apparently immortal Sergio Busquets remaining from the team that won the World Cup in 2010, is young and energetic, but inexperienced; Belgium’s age is seen as its weakness, the sense being that its moment has come and gone. Germany has the air of a team in transition.
Their opponents, too, will have been heartened by Saudi Arabia’s achievements. Costa Rica made the quarterfinals eight years ago; why should it fear Spain? Canada has not been here since 1986 but has two genuinely exciting stars to unsettle the Belgians’ creaking defense. Japan has a squad with plenty of experience in Europe. They all, in fact, have advantages that Saudi Arabia did not. If the Saudis could cause a shock, what is to stop anybody else?
Spain vs. Costa Rica
How to watch: 11 a.m. Eastern. Fox, Telemundo, Peacock (free).
Matchups: One of the youngest teams in the field, Spain brims with one-named stalwarts in the midfield, from Pedri to Rodri to Gavi, who will thrust into the attacking third and stay there. At some point, though, Spain would be wise to relinquish the ball by shooting it — on goal, ideally — and it figures they will have plenty of opportunities to do so.
However, never, ever underestimate Costa Rica, which reached the 2014 quarterfinals and still features the elite goalkeeper, Keylor Navas, and top attacking threat, Joel Campbell, who powered that surprising joyride. Los Ticos will not control possession against Spain — in fairness, who does? — but they have the potential to absorb all means of pressure and then swipe a result off the counterattack.
Germany vs. Japan
How to watch: 8 a.m. Eastern. FS1, Telemundo, Peacock (free).
Matchups: Germany abounds with playmaking talent up front and in the midfield, but it is the back line that will dictate, to a degree, whether it flops or flourishes. Beyond Antonio Rudiger, the Germans are sturdy if not spectacular defensively, and that variability could benefit patient teams willing to wait and probe for mistakes.
Like, for instance, Japan, which would surprise few from Cologne to Leipzig if it emerges with, at worst, a draw in this match. Its strength is in the collective, not in any individual superiority, though Japan must contend with a relative paucity of finishing options up top. Many players compete in the Bundesliga and are familiar with their German counterparts.
Belgium vs. Canada
How to watch: 2 p.m. Eastern. Fox, Telemundo, Peacock (free).
Matchups: Despite never progressing beyond the World Cup semifinals, Belgium’s so-called golden generation remains in its waning stages a pleasure to watch, with Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard capable of wondrous feats of sorcery every time they touch the ball.
But a reliable, if older, back line headlined by Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld could be vulnerable against the speed, speed and speed of Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David and Tajon Buchanan, who thrive in transition and have the capacity, if not the certainty, to make Canada’s first World Cup match in 36 years a surprising delight.